Oystermen head out early in Eastpoint, Fla., for a day of fishing in Apalachicola Bay. DAN CHAPMAN / DCHAPMAN@AJC.COM

Georgia court filing: Water wars case could cost state $18 billion

Georgia’s economy could take an $18 billion hit if Florida prevails in the upcoming “water wars” trial, according to court documents filed Thursday.

Florida, which is suing Georgia for hogging too much of the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers, appears to be aiming its legal guns at the farmers in southwest Georgia who use copious amounts of surface and groundwater to grow cotton, peanuts and other crops.

North Georgia’s pain, though, could be substantial, especially as the region perches on the precipice of another damaging drought. Florida claims a drought, like the 2007-09 scorcher that dried up reservoirs and kept Atlantans from watering lawns, would cause “catastrophic and irreversible” damage.

Florida, during drought, wants a 40 percent increase in river water flowing from Georgia into the Sunshine State to save endangered species, boost the economy and restore the near-dead oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay. Georgia counters that capping the state’s water consumption would be “so costly to Georgia, and result in so few benefits to Florida, that they are neither ‘justified’ nor ‘equitable’ … (and) will not provide Florida meaningful relief from the harms it alleges.”

Thursday’s filings lay out each state’s legal strategy. Pretrial compromise seems unlikely. The governors of Florida and Georgia met a few times the previous year to try to work out a deal. Those efforts appear fruitless: A trial is set to begin Oct. 31 — Halloween — in Portland, Maine.

Ralph Lancaster, the no-nonsense attorney appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court to serve as the trial’s special master, may rule by year’s end on who gets how much of the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers. Then it’s up to the high court. Lancaster, though, has admonished both states to settle the case via mediation, warning that neither will be pleased with his decision.

Although the burden of proof lies with Florida, which sued Georgia two years ago claiming the state hogs the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers, water war observers say a compromise remains the best solution.

“I don’t think either state has the upper hand,” said Ryan Rowberry, a Georgia State University law professor who worked on a previous Georgia v. Florida water case. “Both will lose in the sense that whatever decision the judge comes out with will make both Florida and Georgia conserve more water while adding some sort of sliding scale on how much water goes over the border.”

Florida seeks an “equitable apportionment” of the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers, which form the Apalachicola River at the border, to save its beleaguered oyster industry, an endangered mussel and an economy dependent upon a healthy flow of water. Florida wants to return Georgia water withdrawals to 1992 levels when metro Atlanta was half its size, populationwise.

“Without a remedy in this case,” the plaintiff writes, “Florida will be subject to Georgia’s unconstrained growth, not only repeating the devastating events in the Apalachicola of the past decade (including the 2012 Apalachicola oyster crash), but making them far worse.”

Georgia, naturally, differs and blames Florida for its low-flow ills. In 2013, for example, the University of Florida reported that “insufficient fishery management enforcement” led to overfishing of Apalachicola Bay. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a year earlier, wrote that “over-harvesting of illegal and sub-legal oysters (is) further damaging an already stressed population.”

Georgia in its Thursday filing said, “The truth is that Florida’s own mismanagement of its oyster fishery had a devastating impact on Apalachicola Bay oyster populations.”

Its brief also points out that water use across metro Atlanta declined from 155 gallons per person per day in 2000 to 98 gallons a day today.

Florida’s “draconian” request to reduce Georgia’s water consumption would “jeopardize” the state’s economy and “yield no benefit” to Florida because the Chattahoochee is controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Florida, during drought, wants perhaps an additional 2,000 cubic feet per second of water from Georgia. The corps typically guarantees 5,000 cfs.

“Because this court case will not have a bearing on Army Corps operations, it’s possible that a resolution may fall on Georgia’s farmers to provide more water to Florida,” said Jason Ulseth, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, adding that the federal water engineers will ultimately weigh in on any water-sharing deal.

Georgia is home to 98 percent of the population and 99 percent of the economic activity of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin, according to the Peach State’s filing. Water is essential to the chicken, auto part, airplane, landscaping and carwashing industries, and water reductions sought by Florida would impose a $13.5 billion hit to Georgia’s industrial economy.

“Accepting Florida’s proposed remedies would thus inflict massive economic injury on Georgia’s farmers and Atlanta’s water supply, without providing any measurable benefit to Florida,” Georgia’s filing states.

Agricultural revenue in southwest Georgia — cotton, peanuts and corn in particular — topped $4 billion in 2013, Georgia states. Florida’s oyster industry, by contrast, generates $5 million to $8 million a year.

One Florida expert proposes Georgia, in dry years, reduce row crop irrigation up to 71 percent and curtail all outdoor water usage — attention Atlanta lawn lovers — as much as 75 percent.

“North Georgia will be fine; that’s where the water flows from,” said Rowberry, the Georgia State law professor. “It’s probably going to bite agriculture users who are the largest consumers of the water. No one knows how much water they take in and take out.”

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